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Sutter Locks Out Striking Workers By RICHARD BRENNEMAN and JAKOB SCHILER

Friday December 03, 2004

Sutter Health carried out its threat against nurses and other union members who staged a one-day walkout Wednesday and refused to let them go back to work Thursday morning, the start of a four-day lockout. 

Striking registered nurses from the California Nurses Association and members of Service Employees International who joined the one-day action Wednesday found themselves barred from their jobs at the Berkeley and Oakland facilities of Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. 

They will not be allowed to return to their jobs until 6 a.m. Monday, five days after the strike began. 

In a prepared statement, CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro called the lockout “an outrageous slap in the face to the patients and the communities that Sutter purports to represent,” and said the move “will sharply escalate tensions between Sutter and its RNs.” 

The lockout affects 6,700 CNA and SEIU employees at 13 Sutter facilities in Antioch, Berkeley, Castro Valley, Lakeport, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Vallejo. 

Carolyn Kemp, spokesperson for Alta Bates in Berkeley, said 60 percent of their R.N.s had reported for work, as had 57 percent of nurses without an RN degrees. 

“Once again, they’re lying,” said CNA spokesperson Charles Idelson. About 80 percent of CNA nurses throughout the 13 hospitals stayed away during Wednesday’s walkout, he said, “and I was at Alta Bates this morning (Thursday) and they were turning our people away.” 

A representative of SEIU Local 250, said 99 percent of their members had participated in Wednesday’s walkout. The union represents hospital workers who are neither doctors nor registered nurses. 

He said the union had already sent letters to each hospital saying they were willing to sit down and negotiate with each one as soon as striking union employees were allowed back on the job.  

Alta Bates officials insisted that the walkout and lockout had little impact on the hospital. Said Kemp, “The doctors are very happy and the patients are very happy. A cardiac surgeon who went in to perform an operation Wednesday found his whole team waiting for him. There are wards where every employee is still working,” she said. 

The biggest problem from the strike, she said, was the loud noise from strikers outside the facility. “It’s irresponsible,” she said. “It’s reprehensible.” Kemp said one patient was so disturbed by the noise that he had to be transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. 

The hospital was fully staffed Thursday by regular workers who had crossed the picket lines and by supplemental staff hired from temporary agencies. 

“The [state] Department of Health Services had been to all the sites and they told us they were very impressed by the way we had prepared for the strike and with the way we are operating,” Kemp said. 

Idelson said the lockout was a clear violation of the existing collective bargaining agreement between CNA and Sutter. 

The hospital staff members who joined the picket lines at Alta Bates Wednesday said they knew their actions would cost them a week’s pay. 

Frida Adamson, a member of the housekeeping staff for the past two years, explained her presence on the lines in a single sentence. “It’s an old saying: If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.” 

The unions’ cause has been winning a voice in setting patient care staffing levels. 

“It’s unsafe,” said Rose Mejia, a CA1 care giver at Alta Bates for four-and-a-half years. 

While she often cares for nine or ten patients, she said six or seven is a much more reasonable load. “By getting so many, we wind up neglecting them,” she said. 

Among her duties are feeding and bathing her charges and drawing blood sample. 

“You want to do everything right; you don’t want to make mistakes,” she said. When she’s forced to rush from patient to patient, she said, patients yell at her. “They say, ‘What about me?’” 

Barbara Linde, a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) at Alta Bates, walked the picket line Wednesday because she’s unhappy with how the hospital uses its LVNs and RNs. 

RNs receive more training, typically a four-year degree, and typically have greater responsibilities than LVNs. 

Linde said often the LVNs are overloaded, making up for shortages of RNs, while at other times LVNs aren’t used to their full capacity. She charged that Sutter tries to skirt the law by manipulating the staffing ratios of the two nursing categories. 

“I want to be able to work to our capacity, where we are treated as valuable staff and are working within the limits of the law,” she said, adding that the walkout and subsequent lockout would be worthwhile “if we can get our contract settled.